Friday, May 27, 2005

To Charles Williams

by C.S. Lewis

Your death blows a strange bugle call, friend, and all is hard
To see plainly or record truly. The new light imposes change,
Re-adjusts all a life-landscape as it thrusts down its probe from the sky,
To create shadows, to reveal waters, to erect hills and deepen glens.
The slant alters. I can't see the old contours. It's a larger world
Than I once thought it. I wince, caught in the bleak air that blows on the ridge.
Is it the first sting of a great winter, the world-waning? Or the cold air of spring?

A hard question and worth talking a whole night on. But with whom?
Of whom now can I ask guidance? With what friend concerning your death
Is it worth while to exchange thoughts unless--oh, unless it were you?

* * *

A beautiful poem on the death of a close friend. Lewis's poetry can be hard to understand sometimes, but this poem is very sharp and sweet.

The first section of the poem expresses the speaker's confusion. He doesn't know how to face his friend's death. Everything is different now. The land has not changed, but the light has changed and turned the land to an unfamiliar landscape. There is a chill in the air--is it winter, or just a spring chill? He can't get the perspective to be able to tell.

The last three lines, however, are the really moving part. The speaker wants to talk to someone about what he's going through. But the only one he could have told is the one person he can't talk to anymore. It's contradictory, but a paradox we all have to deal with at some point in our lives.

I think Charles Williams, by the way, was an Inkling. Does anyone know anything else about him?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

I sit beside the fire

by J.R.R. Tolkien

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

* * *

Okay, I admit it: I'm nostalgic. Everyone can surely tell from the poems I've put up anyway. Freshman year is over. I'm a grown-up girl now. My approaching birthday adds to it all. So many things that once I cared about are over now.

I get in these moods sometimes, like Bilbo does, when I just think awhile. I think of the past, and also of the future. I think of all the things I have seen, and all the things I haven't seen.

But as long as there are people still around, these moods only last for a time. Eventually the present comes back, and I realize that it is the most important thing. "All you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given you." You can't change the past. Take care of the present and the future will take care of itself. Time spent sitting and thinking have to be secondary to time spent actually living life.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Farewell to Lórien

by J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring

'Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Glóin!'

'Nay!' said Legolas. 'Alas for us all! And for all that walk the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Glóin: for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise. But you have not forsaken your companions, and the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlórien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.'

'Maybe,' said Gimli, 'and I thank you for your words. True words doubtless; yet all such comfort is cold. Memory is not what the heart desires. This is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram. Or so says the heart of Gimli the Dwarf. Elves may see things otherwise. Indeed I have heard that for them memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves.'

* * *

Here Tolkien deals with one of my perennial questions: since the loss of joy is so hard to bear, might it not be better never to have tasted joy at all?

Gimli says yes. It is too hard to leave happiness behind: he would have rather not have come than endured it. Memory is not enough of a comfort. Instead it reminds him of his sorrow.

Legolas, on the other hand, says no. Even if one does have to leave what one loves, it is better at least to have known it. "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Memory may be slightly bitter, but it is also sweet.

And Legolas adds another important point: Gimli has proven his worth by freely renouncing the happiness of Lothlórien. He has shown that he truly does have the strength to do the right thing even if it means giving up the thing he wanted most. It is cold comfort for one who suffers, but later it can be an assurance against self-doubt.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Sonnets from the Portuguese, VI

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forebore---
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

* * *

I guess it's apparent by now that I'm fond of Browning (this Browning. The other's good too, though).

A summary might be useful; she can be a little difficult. She clusters metaphors together to say one thing: that when the man leaves her, she still feels that she is bound to him. No matter what she does, he is a part of her. My favorite phrase is, "without the sense of that which I forebore-- / Thy touch upon the palm." She didn't let him touch her hand when he said goodbye, but she still feels the touch, because she longed for it and imagines it. The touch that wasn't given is felt even more than any actual touch could be.

Browning has a peculiar feminine touch in her poetry. I doubt whether men feel this way, taking leave of their wives and sweethearts. They love them, certainly, but they don't have the lady on their mind so constantly as women would. Men think of what they're doing; women think of what they're doing, what they have done, what they will do, what they'd like to do, and what the people they love are doing.

Of course, I'm making sweeping generalizations based on very little evidence. I wouldn't mind if a man came on here and told me I was wrong. I would rather like to be wrong.

Monday, May 16, 2005

To Marguerite--Continued

by Matthew Arnold

Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.

But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour—

Oh! then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain—
Oh might our marges meet again!

Who ordered, that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?
Who renders vain their deep desire?—
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.

* * *

This is one of my favorite melancholy poems. I get in these mopey moods sometimes and have to read Arnold. I guess it's in my blood: Matthew Arnold is a long-distant uncle of mine.

It's a response to Donne's line, "No man is an island." In one way, certainly, Donne is right: the things we do affect others. But Arnold is also right: we are not all one; we are eternally separate. Sometimes, of course, this is a good thing, but sometimes, "when the moon their hollows lights," people begin to realize how badly they want at least some unity with each other.

While it's true that we can never know another human being absolutely, and that we must be separate in many ways and alone at many times, people also have a longing to connect with each other. And in different ways, we do manage it: friendship, marriage, and highest of all, the union of the Church.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Veni Sancte Spiritus

Sequence for Pentecost

Veni, sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.

Come, holy Spirit, and send down from heaven the ray of your light.

Veni pater pauperum,
veni dator munerum,
veni lumen cordium.

Come, father of the poor, come, giver of riches, come, light of hearts.

Consolator optime,
dulcis hospes anime,
dulce refrigerium.

Best comforter, sweet guest of souls, sweet refreshment.

In labore requies,
in aestu temperies,
in fletu solatium.

Rest in labor, temperateness in heat, solace in weeping.

O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.

O most blessed light, fill the inmost hearts of your faithful.

Sine tuo numine,
nihil est in homine,
nihil est innoxium.

Without your divinity, there is nothing in man, there is nothing harmless.

Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.

Wash what is dirty, water what is dry, cure what is wounded.

Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.

Bend what is rigid, warm what is cold, guide what is wayward.

Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.

Give to your faithful, who trust in you, the holy sevenfold [gift].

Da virtutis meritum,
da salutis exitum,
da perenne gaudium. Amen.

Give the reward of virtue, give the result of salvation, give eternal joy. Amen.

* * *

This is my own translation; hence it is extremely awkward, and as literal as I could make it and still speak English. However, there are plenty of less literal translations out there. The verse one is actually not too far from the Latin; however, it is very ungraceful, in my opinion. The Latin is short, sweet, and light; the English is heavy and bumbling, adding all sorts of extra words. But I guess that's unavoidable when you translate a compact language like Latin.

The Pentecost sequence is one of my favorite Latin prayers, and the music is superb. It's one of those chant melodies that changes tune every two verses--but once you learn it, it's a joy to sing. Singing is praying twice--and Gregorian chant is praying three times, I think.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

by John Donne

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
Their breath goes now, and some say no;

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of the earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
Interassured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they two are so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

So wilt thou be to me, who must
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness draws my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begun.

* * *

A beautiful Metaphysical poem, using such sharp images: a deathbed, celestial spheres, alchemy, compasses. There's definitely a strong Renaissance feel to the poem. But I think it's still applicable, even now: people still have to say goodbye.

Today I go home, and leave behind my freshman year of college. I hope that my friends and I can be like the people in this poem: too good of friends for our friendship to wane in the least just because we're physically far apart. I will miss them, but I know that they are not going to forget me over the summer. And think how happy we will be to be back together in the fall!

It's funny: nine months ago these people were all complete strangers to me. Now they are "grappled to my soul with hoops of steel." I think we will never, even after college, stop being friends in one way or another.

Still, "tear-floods" and "sigh-tempests" are threatening in the weather forecast. I can't help but be a little emotional. I guess I'm rather sublunary after all.

Monday, May 09, 2005


Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness;
in your abundant compassion blot out my offense.
Wash away all my guilt,
from my sin cleanse me.

For I know my offense;
my sin is always before me.
Against you alone have I sinned;
I have done such evil in your sight
that you are just in your sentence,
blameless when you condemn.

True, I was born guilty,
a sinner, even as my mother conceived me.
Still, you insist on sincerity of heart,
in my inmost being teach me wisdom.

Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;
wash me, make me whiter than snow.
Let me hear sounds of joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Turn away your face from my sins;
blot out all my guilt.
A clean heart create from me, God;
renew in me a steadfast spirit.

Do not drive me from your presence,
nor take from me your holy spirit.
Restore my joy in your salvation;
sustain in me a willing spirit.

I will teach the wicked your ways,
that sinners may return to you.
Rescue me from death, God, my saving God,
that my tongue may praise your healing power.

Lord, open my lips;
my mouth will proclaim your praise.
For you do not desire sacrifice,
a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit,
God, do not spurn a broken, contrite heart.

Make Zion prosper in your good pleasure,
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with proper sacrifice,
burnt offerings and holocausts;
then bullocks will be offered on your altar.

* * *

This isn't the best translation, I know, but it's the one I have memorized.

It is a psalm of David, when he begged forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba.

Friday, May 06, 2005

No Worst

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who never hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

* * *

Note: I added the spaces in this poem to make it easier to read. Hopkins often did this, although in my book the poem is printed in one big block.

This sonnet is one of Hopkins' many "dark" sonnets; however, even his dark sonnets are not, like other poets', completely hopeless. He always has at least a note of hope.

In this one, he points out that the more intense sorrow is, the less likely it is to last long. The human heart can only suffer so much for so long, because after a time it gets used to it.

And also, a comfort only to the badly suffering, he finds hope in the thought that he will die someday, and that sleep is the next best thing to dying. Sleep is nothingness: but when one is badly suffering, nothingness is a great relief.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

WITH blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look'd sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

* * *

I must apologise that this poem isn't indented properly. I'm a complete dunce with html and couldn't figure out how to do it.

This is just one of many examples, first, of Tennyson's beautiful sounds (which is why Higgens makes Eliza read it with marbles in her mouth in My Fair Lady), and second, of his power to evoke a strong mood simply by describing a scene.